Judith Ortiz Cofer
Contributing Editor: Juan Bruce-Novoa
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Ortiz Cofer is quite clear and accessible, although students have questions
about who she is and why she uses Spanish.
I present the students something from my own cultural background, with
allusions to Mexican history and culture. Then I ask them to jot down what
has been said. We compare the results, finding that those who do not share
the background will choose different elements out of the material than
those who come from a background similar to my own. We discuss the function
of ethnic identification through shared allusions about the drawing of
the ethnic circle around some readers, while excluding others, even when
the latter can understand the words.
Students respond to the theme of the abandoned female, which often results
in discussions of the single-parent family.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
he theme of male absence and women who wait is perhaps the major one
touched on here. Also, there is the historical theme of Puerto Ricans and
other minorities in the military as a way of life that both gives them
mobility yet divides their families.
The colonization of Puerto Rico by the U.S. and the division of its
population into island and mainland groups are reflected in the division
of the family. The bilingual child is another result of the confluence
of these two nations, reflected in the preoccupation with which language
authority will accept from would-be participants.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This is confessional poetry, but with a twist. The author walks a fine
line between writing for her own group and writing for the general audience.
Thus she introduces Spanish and some culture items from the island, but
recontextualizes them into English and U.S. culture. The style becomes
an intercultural hybrid.
There is the Puerto Rican audience that will bring to the poems a specific
knowledge of cultural elements that they share with the poet. This audience
will place the poem in a wider catalog of cultural references. The non-Puerto
Rican audience must draw only from the information given, and will perhaps
apply the situations to universal myths or archetypes.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
You can compare her well to many other women writers, especially in
the sense of women alone in a male world. For example, "Claims"
can be read with Lorna
Dee Cervantes's "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. I ask them to consider what is the function of ethnic writing. How
does it work for insiders as compared to outsiders? They should try to
determine at what point ethnic writing becomes incomprehensible to outsiders,
and what it means to open it to readers beyond the ethnic circle.
2. Write on the theme of the distant patriarch in U.S. contemporary
3. Write on the pros and cons of foreign language in literature. The
"God" of "Latin Women Pray" can be taken as a metaphor
for the U.S. reading public.
Refer to the headnote in the text for specific information. Consult
also Acosta-Belen, Edna. "The Literature of the Puerto Rican National
Minority in the United States." The Bilingual Review 5:1-2
(Jan.-Aug. 1978): 107-16.